Intro to Roam Research

Posted on Thu 02 July 2020 in Analysis

Like much of the smart internet, I’ve recently fallen in love with [[Roam Research]]. It’s one of the first “Everything Brain” apps that has vibed with how I think about and use apps on a day to day basis. Here, I want to put down some thoughts on how I use it and the easiest ways to get started with it.

First, who am I? I’d say that I am a vague member of the technocracy, but I often struggle with popular apps. In other words, I read Ben Thompson and follow Patrick McKenzie on twitter, but don’t understand Notion and am not the Target Demographic for Superhuman. My goal here is a rough “Here’s how to get started in a sustainable way, which you can build on with the whizzy features later.”

Base Features

As has been written about at length, most would deem the main feature of [[Roam Research]] is the wiki-style linking. If you wrap anything in double brackets (as I have with Roam Research above), it links to that page if it’s been created or creates it if it doesn’t yet exist. If you click on a link, that takes you to the page, with the links moved to the bottom in a “Linked References” section.

What I find most people don’t know is that if you’ve used the same words before but didn’t link to the page, there’s also an “Unlinked References” section where it takes it’s best guess if you spell that word the same way.

I find that there are two main ways that I use Roam; for lack of a better word: Daily Mode and Other Linking.

Daily Mode comes around because Roam Research opens up to a page with today’s date on it. I do most of my logging on the Daily Pages - what happened, who did I talk to, what thoughts did I have about any of these issues. The magic comes when I link to things in double square brackets (explained more above).

Dealing with the other pages comes from the creation in the Daily Mode section. I’ll often click into the “All Pages” section and work on building those out and linking them. Setting aside dedicated time to create links has helped me build out my link structure and unify my writing together.

How to get started

I think the easiest way to get started is to focus on the Today page. Here, I usually write down the main tasks I concentrate on, as well as any big ideas I had. Any noun that I think is worthy gets a double square bracket. The focus here is making sure to overuse the square brackets. This does two things: when I go back through the pages I created in the All Pages tab, I can further add additional links. Additionally, it also acts as a mini CRM - if I’m referring to any linked Noun over multiple days, I’m able to see the days that I referred to in the past. This feature can be surprisingly useful - I often find myself picking up thoughts by happenstance weeks after I first created the page. For a brief time, I started consulting for data science and data munging type stuff - it’s been a godsend being able to make pages for the different technologies and players to refer back to later. I’ll give you an example below on what a bullet for yesterday would look like: Worked on [[Twilio]] script to deal with a call to [[$Company]] cc [[Automation]] and [[Python]]

Here, Twilio, Python, and Automation are pages that I had already created, while the page for $Company I just created in that bullet. When I click into Automation, I can then see all of the bullets that had an [[Automation]] tag in them. Same with Python and Twilio.

The linking here comes naturally. Say I click into Automation. I then see a bullet from two weeks ago, talking about another Python library, Twint. I can then link that to Python and create a new page for twitter, where I can then connect both of them.

Doing that for a couple of weeks automatically builds up pages that you created. I then go through every week and build links between all of those pages. Say I click into Automation - I’d then type out some thoughts on it using Python and various No Code tools. Those then lead to more pages (say, [[No Code]]), which I then continue to build out.

Advanced Features

Once you have the basics of linking pages down, you can move onto the more advanced features. A few examples would be embedding individual blocks, using additional features like the date picker/kaban, etc., and different linking methods. Embedding individual blocks is excellent because it allows you to remix your writing. I’m able to grab a block, integrate it into the current page I’m working on, and make further comments on top of it—such a great feature.

This ability to remix one’s writing is worth exploring and why I’ve been drafting this piece in Roam. By having this writing available, I’m able to grab paragraphs for use later.

There are also some additional features - any slash commands are interesting, but I’ve been using the date picker to shoot blocks into the future. There are also options for word count and a Kaban board (if you’re into that sort of thing!)

I’ve also been thinking about reusing the features in new and exciting ways. The founder tweeted that he has a [[Morning Pages]] link, where he pairs that with the word count option to both log his morning pages and get the word count for them. Great feature - I feel like we’re only scratching the surface of what to do with this.

Cost and Alternatives

One thing to mention is that while the product is not going to be free - it’s currently $15 a month or $500 for five years (the True Believer Plan), which is not insignificant. They’ve also got options for those in the education sector.

Other options replicate some of the same functionality - one that I don’t hear people talking about is [[Drafts]]. Drafts has the Roam style backlinking, and it also has iOS and Mac Apps - if you need something in a web browser, this wouldn’t be for you. Two things that make it appealing is that a yearly subscription is ~1/12 of the cost ($15 a year), and the app has Javascript functionality built-in. It would require a new way to think about text, but I think it could be a strong contender if your mind works that way.

Conclusion

Roam Research is a fascinating tool. Its complete functionality can’t be replicated anywhere else, and the team is iterating at such a fast pace I’m sure this project will continue to grow. The cost can be a factor, but if you can swing it, I recommend taking it for a test drive.